When I was a child and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had two answers; I either wanted to work in a Megabowl bowling alley so I could go bowling whenever I wanted, or at Blockbuster Video so that I could rent VHS tapes all the time. I don’t know what’s more tragic: my potential career choices or the fact that I’m old enough that I still remember when it was called Megabowl.
Given the eventual closure of both franchises, I was suddenly plunged into the harsh reality of broken childhood dreams, but after many years of maturing and gaining more of an idea of what I wanted to study at university, I realised I wanted to pursue something arts-related. My dad had spent many years in the theatre and he would always wow me with stories of his experiences: meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber, giving singing lessons to Charles Dance and, most importantly, “finding his people”. His theatre family meant something to him and he was always keen for me to find my people.
Unfortunately, standing in front of an audience and acting on a stage has always made me nervous, with my legs and voice beginning to tremble in most school plays, so I knew I wanted to be involved in a different element of the arts. As I grew into my teens, I found my niche: comedy. As well as various sitcoms like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’, I also enjoyed watching stand-up comedians earn real applause and laughter, not just from a laugh track. At school, one of the shows my friends and I all loved was ‘Mock the Week’, especially the ‘Scenes We’d Like To See’ round. Our favourite panellist was Scottish stand-up comedian Frankie Boyle who, at the time, was pushing a more shocking and vulgar brand of humour. We would quote his jokes regularly and have tons of laughs. However, for me, it was more than the punchline. I loved the shocking humour, but I also understood why, structurally, the jokes were funny. I understood about comic timing, speed of delivery and effective build-up, which was something I realised set me apart from my friends. When I tried to explain how these elements worked, they didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for my analysis and made it clear that they really only cared about Boyle’s punchlines.
I kept up my passion for stand-up comedy in the years after school. I would ask for stand-up DVDs every birthday and Christmas and learn as much as I could. I had everyone from Michael McIntyre to Lisa Lampinelli. If stuff was funny, I couldn’t get enough of it. If it wasn’t funny, I tried to work out why it wasn’t. My passion grew stronger with every new DVD and, after seeing Frankie Boyle perform live, I knew I wanted to pursue a potential career in this industry.
In 2014, at the age of 23, I came home from university for the summer break and decided that I wanted to work in the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As a Frankie Boyle superfan, I knew that he got his start at The Stand Comedy Club on York Place in Edinburgh, so I sent an email to them asking to be part of the Street Team for that year. I realised I had to start at the bottom if I wanted to get anywhere. I managed to bag myself an interview and arrived at The Stand scared out of my wits. I had passed this place many times knowing how important it was to the comedy industry, and now it was my chance to work there. I entered, ‘being myself’ as my mum had drilled into me beforehand. Hayley, Callum and Kirstin were the three people I had to impress with an impromptu pitch of Phil Jupitus’ show (which veered off into a pitch of Katherine Ryan’s show because that was the one I had prepared for). After a slightly shaky combination of pitches, my first thought was “Well maybe they’ll think about the diversity quota and hire me because I’m gay.” Fortunately, Hayley said I was a ray of sunshine and hired me right there. As I left, I skipped down the road with delight, unaware that everyone could see me out the window, something that was publicly brought to my attention on my first day.
Despite this, that summer was one of the best of my life. I learned a lot of life lessons and made a ton of new, some life-long, friends (Kirstin came with me to my university ball and Callum became my flatmate). As part of the Street Team, I was essentially one of the annoying people that comes up to you, attempts to shove a flyer in your hand and pitch you a show that starts in five minutes, also known as, those who you try to avoid at all costs. On my first day, I was happy, smiley and excited; I was myself. However, on my first attempt to stop somebody and engage in a conversation about a show, their response was “Fuck off, retard.” I stopped dead in my tracks. My smile faded, my lip began to tremble and I began to tear up. I ignored everyone on my way back to the manager’s office, genuinely wanting to quit there and then. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy coming my way and, in hindsight, I’m glad there wasn’t. “You can’t let one dickhead get to you.” Kirstin said, not taking her eyes off her computer screen. I didn’t need the violins, even though I would have killed for a concerto at the time. I had a small weep (one of many throughout August), got back on my feet and got back out there, and I’m so glad I did. My passion drove me forward and it was encouraged by all of the staff at The Stand. By the end of the Fringe, I had finished in the top three for most tickets sold throughout the run. I remember at the wrap party, Hayley took me aside and told me, with genuine sincerity, “You’re going to do well in this industry”
Fringe 2020 would have been my seventh consecutive year working at this festival. It’s from my time at The Stand that I’ve since been able to connect with some of the biggest and most creative names in the industry. I’ve worked with various other companies in different roles and gained a wide array of practical experience, from reviewing to public relations. I’ve met collaborators and mentors who continue to help me in my ongoing creative career. I have found my people through The Stand Comedy Club and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
Venues such as The Stand are so important, not only to discover new talent and help nurture up and coming comedians, but to also help inexperienced people with a passion for performance like myself. These venues have helped shape me into a more confident person and really fuelled my drive to pursue a career which I genuinely enjoy.
I would encourage everyone who has taken the time to read this to check social media for anything they can do to help. The Stand is having their last live comedy show online on Saturday 29th August at 8:30pm. You have the chance to donate, as well as seeing a super line up of comedians. At 7pm, also on 29th, Monkey Barrel Comedy is also hosting a fundraiser with a great line up of very funny people, hosted by the wonderful George Fox and Amy Matthews (Amy also has written a powerful thread on Twitter about her own experiences and memories with Monkey Barrel which is well worth a read. Her handle is @AmyFMatthews)
It breaks my heart to think that a venue that has done so much for me and countless others could be on the brink of closure. Many live venues all over Scotland are under that same threat.
We always rely on comedy to get us through the worst of times. Now, in its time of need, comedy is desperately relying on us.
By James Macfarlane
You can support The Stand by donating here: https://www.thestand.co.uk/donate/